10 Nov 2014 08:00
Surrounded by mountains and divided into sectors by concrete blast walls, there is a place in Kabul where you can dive into an atmosphere of colors and children’s joy. For the war-torn, landlocked Afghanistan – after more than three decades suffering from multiple invasions and religious conservatism - circus is giving Afghan youth a positive outlet: and they sure put on a show.
Vivid colors and girls singing and juggling still shocks conservative elders, but after a while their smiles give them away. Entering the door to the circus’ main center in Kabul means stepping into a world of fun and colors, where boys and girls practice together and take charge of their own learning.
The Circus was founded in 2002, less than a year after the fall of the Taliban regime, which banned music and dance. While NGOs and government programs focused on building roads, schools and basic education systems, David Mason, who was a former tango dance instructor, and his co-director Berit Muhlhausen, a former journalist, focused on introducing and developing soft values that bring children together and create joyful communities.
The first idea was an orphanage with space for creativity, but they wanted to reach as many kids as possible. A traveling circus proved an excellent opportunity. After all, circus is all about overcoming fear. It's about trust. It's based on non-verbal communication; it represents a multicultural tradition, and its purpose is to make people smile.
For the last 10 years, more than 2.7 million spectators in 25 provinces have enjoyed a performance or participated in one of the hundreds of workshops, despite the reality in Afghanistan that conservative society, especially in rural provinces of Afghanistan, doesn’t accept public arts.
“If we go to remote regions and perform in a very conservative area where mullahs will say ‘no,’ then we adjust our performance,” Berit said. “Maybe we perform without music, less joking, no signing, or we start with the prayer from the holy Quran; and then they relax and see that this is harmless and it’s not dangerous.”
Mohammed Sadat, 13, from Bamiyan dreamt to become a gymnast, and once he found a circus show in one of the schools, he joined them. In the future, he said, he sees himself in two ways: first, becoming a gymnastics coach for young kids, and second, studying and becoming an engineer to help reconstructing his country. For now, he is part of the acrobatic team that builds human pyramids during performances.
In the circus garden in Kabul, girls sing and juggle with clubs and tennis balls, while boys perform backward somersaults and cartwheels and form human pyramids. All together they stage educational performances on the importance of hygiene, school attendance, landmine awareness and malaria prevention. The main goal is to entertain and give joy to an audience of their peers from camps for internally displaced people, schools and orphanages.
Shamsot, 14, is the son of an high ranking officer in the Afghan military who chose to be a circus clown. “I’m really happy to see smiles on the faces of those poor kids,” he said. Berit and David were afraid that Shamsot’s parents wouldn’t be happy with what their son is doing, but after seeing the show they encouraged him to continue training and performing with the circus.
In its centers in Kabul and Bamiyan, and with the help of trained children in other provinces, the circus organizes festivals and joyful events each year, inspiring Afghans as well as internationals to forget the dust and the war for a while - to join the fun and smile a bit.